rs21 member Kate Bradley reviews Shake the City by Alexander Billet, a well-written and thought-provoking book on the role of music in making political change.
NHS at 70: Free For All, Forever – central London protest 30th June 2018 with Rhoda Daker. Photo credit: Steve Eason
Alexander Billett, Shake the City: Experiments in Space and Time (London: 1968 Press, 2022), 125 pp, £11.99
In this time of political upheaval and renewed resistance, it’s more important than ever to think about the tactics we are using to create social change, including the often neglected cultural aspects of our struggles. Popular music and the arts have been crucial to most of history’s most pivotal moments. This new book couldn’t be more timely, reminding us that music holds the potential to help us imagine better worlds and fight for them in a way that feels joyous and inclusive.
Shake the City really is an excellent book. Its two central muses are music and the city, highlighting the ways in which each shapes the other to trigger, catalyse and accompany social change. Billet considers the increasing privatisation of city space, and argues that music can disrupt this orderly construction of capitalist urban environments that make us feel like no alternative world is possible. It’s because music has the power to change our relationship to space that states so often seek to repress it, whether through policing or ideological attacks. He uses the examples of the legislation used to clamp down on raves internationally and grime in Britain to show how music is taken seriously as a threat. We would be foolish to consider music trivial when our governments don’t.
In the introduction, Billet summarises his aim:
In essence, Shake the City is a call for us to reconnect with an imaginary buried and obscured under the detritus of repression and catastrophe. It insists that our lives can in fact be the magnificent and fulfilling experiences we glimpse when we are gripped by music and art. Against the torpor of authoritarianism and apocalypse, we must nurture any opportunity to dream of a future worth living.
For Billet, music brings people together so it is possible to imagine a utopian future collectively. His belief that this form of imagining is not only pleasurable but essential to human survival suffuses the whole book, making for a dynamic and engaging read. The book is held together by a thread of enthusiasm as it skips across the globe and through history, evading chronology and instead moving thematically through an astonishing array of examples.
At only 125 pages, Shake the City manages to cover a remarkable amount of ground (and popular genres). The book includes a playlist you can listen to while reading, with tracks ranging from ‘West End Girls’ by the Pet Shop Boys to Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, Victor Jara’s ‘El Derecho de Vivir en Paz’ to ‘HELL YOU TALMABOUT’ by Janelle Monae. All find a credible place in Billet’s analysis of how music can challenge capitalism.
Billet’s reflections draw heavily on the work of musicologist Mark Abel, who makes compelling arguments about the formal qualities of popular music being especially amenable to sparking radical resistance. For example, Billet highlights the ways in which recognisable rhythm preexists music – think of the patterns of movement around cities each day, or the repetitive and sequential rhythm of the movements a worker must make in a manual job. Popular music seizes those dull, prescribed rhythms of capitalism and subverts them.
Billet shares with 1990s cultural studies school writers like Stuart Hall a love of hybridisation or ‘kreolization’ (communist jazz musician Fred Ho’s term): the mixing and sharing of cultures by working class, racialised and oppressed peoples. In Part Two of the book, he considers how the creation of particular genres, such as blues or jazz, allows capital to produce commodities (like the CD or MP3 download) to exploit the popularity of new, exciting and often rebellious music coming out of working-class cultural cross-fertilisation.
In the process of their packaging for sale, musical products can be ‘reified’, their radical potential dulled as capitalists appropriate the right to decide how the music sounds and how (and where) to play it, and access to music is placed behind a paywall. As such, Billet’s approach is a helpful blueprint for how to make materialist arguments about music and capitalism, as he recognises the dialectic that plays out as new styles emerge from struggle and social change, then get fed through profit-making structures (the music industry, music venues, festivals etc) en route to their audiences.
Despite his obvious love of music, Billet doesn’t shy away from the fact that music plays a contradictory role in capitalism. Music is not universally liberatory or progressive, and some styles and uses of music can reinforce social division and oppression, from the shopping mall to the opera theatre. He talks about how ‘Muzak’ and, more recently, algorithmically-generated Spotify playlists, are designed to be background music that soothes consumers or workers, facilitating the functioning of capitalism. Nevertheless, his book is an impassioned defence of the power of music to catalyse and soundtrack social movements when it is taken up by people seeking to challenge the status quo.
Though Shake the City draws on concepts that are well-established – whether by theorists of urban space like Henri Lefebvre or Cultural Studies academics like Stuart Hall – Billet’s book brings the analysis right up to date. He examines a wide range of recent social movements, from grime’s role in Britain’s 2010 student protests, to Black Lives Matter in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to the Estadillo Social in Santiago, Chile in 2019. He also has many original reflections on new trends in how listeners ‘consume’ music.
For example, he analyses the role of the internet in capitalism’s evolving attempts to commodify music, especially the stultifying effects of the Spotify algorithm on people’s listening habits. He also considers how the tendency for people to listen to music through earbuds changes its potential to inspire collectivity, discussing Mark Fisher’s idea that listeners wearing earbuds are ‘walling up against the social’. These sections are fascinating and engaging, and got me thinking long after I’d closed the book.
Shake the City is both a political and musicological work – interested in how the form of music shapes its content – and the writing is occasionally challenging and requires concentration as it draws on theoretical approaches with which readers may not be familiar, like Lefebvre’s idea of ‘urban arrhythmia’. Though it can be a little academic in these moments, Billet does his best to keep his writing accessible, ensuring it’s not too heavy with citations or assumed knowledge. It makes a good companion piece to Dave Randall’s Sound System (London: Pluto Press, 2017), which is overall an easier read.
In summary, Shake the City is a well-written, convincing and dynamic book, and a welcome addition to existing writing on music and politics. Music has the power to help us change the world, but only if we appreciate its unique affordances, contexts and effects – and stop relying on the Spotify or YouTube algorithms for our new tunes.
Shake the City can be bought from 1968 Press here or downloaded as a free PDF here.